The Minstrel

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In the final moments before dusk, the overcast day suddenly turned bright. The late afternoon sun emerged from behind the gray clouds like a royal making a grand entrance. The minstrel beamed, bursting into a song of praise that he had heard as a child in his homeland. Light would overcome the darkness, the final victory.

He turned a corner and found himself on a street that he had not been on for many years. He recognized the tall buildings, the outline of the projects. The people who had lived there had arrived with such hope, the street had been alive with vibrant dreams and colors. Children had played soccer and baseball, women conspired together behind veils of knitting and babies on the fire escape, and the men stood on the corners and sat in pubs, smoking cigars and drinking beers, plotting to rule the world. Everyone felt rich; blessed with abundance. Their wealth was not necessarily material, though many never had so many things in their lifetime. Their wealth was a bond, a sense they were all family, that they had found a haven of community with one another. He remembered those days well.

But now, the street was deserted. There were no children playing soccer, no women on the fire escape, none of the men he knew on the corners. Those whom he did pass did not acknowledge him, as if to do so would invite danger. The projects were crumbling, like the abandoned hopes that many had. Graffiti littered the buildings, with the angry protests of those whose spirit had been robbed. It was the only testament left behind to show they had ever existed. The minstrel stopped singing, and all he heard were sounds of decay, of garbage trucks passing by and distant horns blasting in confrontation. The minstrel’s previous joy sank into sadness, sadness at what destruction the Enemy wrought against God’s children and how he poisoned their souls.

Down by the old stationery store and pizzeria there had been a church that he and Lupe worshipped at during their courtship and the early days of their marriage before Raulita was born. After all the decay he had seen here, he still was not prepared for what he saw: the stationary store had morphed into a deserted bakery, barricaded with fences and wires. It looked like a prison. The pizzeria had been deserted altogether, shelled out like it was attacked in a war. And the church was the saddest of all. It was a white wooden church which had been simply decorated by the parish, making look very much like the rural Baptist churches he had visited over the years. Its main relic had been an alabaster replica of the Holy Family smiling together, welcoming all who passed by. But now, the building itself had been condemned. Large gashes plagued the roof, threatening to collapse. The windows were boarded up, and the whole edifice had not been spared the graffiti its neighbors suffered. The Holy Family had not been spared the desecration either. Someone had chopped off Joseph’s arm, and painted a mustache and devil ears on the Virgin. The Blessed Child was missing altogether, and the minstrel was horrified at the prospect of what had befallen Him. Joseph and Mary clung together in their mutilation, hovering over the empty crib, as though foreseeing the nightmare of the future, the loss of their beloved Son. The minstrel felt tears in his eyes, knowing their pain. He crumbled to his knees, thinking of Raulita, and how he lost her. He had a vision of a casket, newly put in the ground, draped with flowers, an image he could not bear to hold or believe to be true. To the Virgin, he pleaded for mercy. For the Holy Mother knew his pain, of that he was sure; she had lost a child just as he had. She would show him mercy, bring Raulita to him in wholeness. He recited the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary, and felt her compassion. Through her compassion, the minstrel knew that God’s comfort was upon him, the Virgin an agent of God’s glorious love. The minstrel clung to the feet of the statue, cocooned in the warmth that his soul now felt. When he knew he was strong enough to leave, he departed from the church, and the destruction he saw around him no longer seemed so strong, for he was renewed in God’s power.

Just as he turned to leave, a dark-skinned man of medium height carrying a Bible approached him. The man seemed familiar and unfamiliar all at once. He was walking quickly, head down, as though deep in thought. But for just one second, their eyes met. The minstrel thought he saw recognition in the man’s eyes, but the man continued briskly along his path. The minstrel turned and watch the receding figure, and saw a vision of a dove trying to envelop the man in a cloud, but the man kept evading it. Raulita suddenly appeared between him and the man, as innocent and vibrant as she had been before her little brother Pablo’s death, before it all ended, skipping the way she did when she played hopscotch with her friends. She followed the man as he turned a corner, and along with the dove, disappeared from sight. The minstrel cast a final look at the Holy Family, asking for God’s protection of the man. Then he walked in the direction that the trio had traveled, trusting he was closer to finding his way back home.

Emmanuel Jackson went on his usual walk after official office hours ended. There were times when office hours went long past the official hour, times when he was sitting over a hospital bed, praying for the healing of a brother or sister, or called to the prisons he called home for too long, introducing the glory of Christ to a soul that was as lost as he once was. When he went there, he thought of Carlos, a lifer who risked his safety by proclaiming Christ in jail. The peace of his soul led Emmanuel to accept the love of Christ. He died just a month after Emmanuel’s conversion, but his impact stayed with Emmanuel. Anytime he felt fear, he would think of Carlos and his jailhouse preaching, who faced down fear with God’s love. Carlos had not allowed fear to dictate his actions, so Emmanuel made it his credos as well. Anytime, anywhere he was called to proclaim Christ, he would go. It was the least he could do with his life, considering how useless and worthless he knew he was. He never told anyone but the late Carlos of the spiritual battle that raged inside of him, not even Casper Williams, the elder who had pulled him out of the life of revolving door prisons, and into the ministry. It was his thorn of torment, his cross to bear.

But today had been an uneventful day, with the exception of two phone calls from Sister Vera. She was a prayer warrior on the order of the prophetess Anna. She called twice today. The first call had been for intercessory prayer for the rash of crimes that had been springing up in the area. Just last month there had been a killing of a street person near the church, a vicious stabbing that had woken up the community to the fact that crime could happen anywhere, not just the south side of the city. Soon after that, a wave of vandalism hit the area, busted windows in the night, and racial epithets splayed over buildings that were already dead of life. Today in particular, Sister Vera felt the need to pray. Later in the afternoon, she called again. She had an urgent word of prophecy for him. Today, God would confront him with an issue from his past that he had been trying to avoid. She gave him no details, and though there was no way she could know, because one person took his secret to the grave with him, paranoia flooded Emmanuel, that he had been found out. Sister Vera’s prayer for him did nothing to allay the fear, and despite his resolve, Emmanuel could not fight it. He wondered what God had in His mind then, and now as he walked about a deserted street. It was one of the places he cased in his old life; he wasn’t too afraid of ghosts here, for most people from that life were dead or in prison. It was on this street where he met his girl, Abdullah MacNamara, Islam Girl, her street name before he rescued her and made her his hostage. She was the woman he would die for, the woman he could not live without. He could picture her ebony lips upon his neck, the caress entrapping him to believe that she was forever. He saw her smiling, rubbing the magical channel of her womb which carried their unborn child. In the vision, he slapped her away, not wanting the trap, because he knew the nightmare which would follow, the root of his secret fear. Jesus has washed away my sins. My past is covered by the blood. He repeated the intonation which Carlos taught him as spiritual warfare. People like us, he instructed, are tortured by Satan through our past. We must remember that no matter what we have done, the blood has washed us clean. It would make him stronger. Jesus, be my strength.

Just as he was beginning to feel revitalized, he saw a man walking past the condemned Catholic church. They encountered each other through their eyes only, but as Emmanuel passed the man, his image locked into his mind. And as the man’s voice began to sing, a voice that resonated like the fallen angel of light himself, a memory resurrected in his mind which he did not want to see risen. But it was there, unfolding with a life of its own which he could not exterminate. He wondered if the man were an angel or a demon, to bring such chaos to him. Fear stayed in his bones despite his cry to the living God, and he remembered Sister Vera’s prophecy, that he would be confronted by the past he did not want to face. He walked away, quickening his pace, as though to outrun the images that were flooding him, but he could not: the ghost of a little girl whom he had buried alive, a little girl whom he had met only once in his life, on the darkest night of his soul.

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